Outlook Uncertain for Universal Early Childhood Ed

by Dalia Tole

For several years, residents of Hoboken have enjoyed the benefit of a high quality free Early Childhood Education for ages 3 and 4. This program, formerly called “Abbott,” currently provides free pre-K to all Hoboken residents, irrespective of their socioeconomic status. Unlike K-12 education, which is funded directly with property taxes, the Early Childhood education is funded by the state of New Jersey (indirectly through state income tax and sales tax). Last year’s grant totaled about $7 million. It is noteworthy that only 4% of 3 year olds in the U.S. are in free Pre-K 3, and only 25% are in free Pre-K 4.

Law changes nature of public preschool from universal to targeted

In 2008, the New Jersey state legislature passed the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). The goals of SFRA are to expand full-day preschool to more high poverty school districts and make pre-K programs available to every at-risk 3- and 4-year old in all districts. Since Hoboken no longer is a high poverty district, free full-day pre-K is to be made available only to all at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds (targeted). In May 2009, in Abbott XX, the state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of SFRA, and therefore ended the special funding status for the Abbott districts, including Hoboken. However, for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, the expansion of the pre-K program to non-Abbott districts was not funded with state aid and Hoboken maintained the status quo of universal public pre-K.

Uncertainty looms about timing, eligibility and transition to new system

As the private school application deadlines loom, some parents can’t help wondering if they should consider alternatives to the free Pre-K and if they can afford it (full time programs run upward of $13,000). Others are worried that loss of eligibility for the public program would create a higher number of applicants for private preschools and longer wait lists for daycares. Since the current private facilities are not equipped to accommodate an additional 200-300 children, several children might not find a spot and have to wait till they turn 5 years old to start public kindergarten. This may especially be difficult for families with working parents who are in the middle income range of not being eligible for free daycare or Pre-K (e.g. under HOPES guidelines) and not being able to afford full-time private child care.
We approached the Hoboken Director of Early Childhood Education, several Board of Education members, and the Hudson County Early Childhood liaison with our concerns and questions. All graciously responded, but unfortunately had the same answer—since funding for the pre-K program comes from the State, they do not know what will happen to the funding until the Governor or state officials tell them sometime in 2011 (likely towards the end of March). However, they believe the funding will not go away overnight, and most likely, the former Abbott districts (including Hoboken) will not lose funding before the program is expanded to new districts.
Meanwhile, Hoboken district submitted its own Pre-K enrollment projection on November 15. Based on a publicly available budget form, the state’s default estimate of Hoboken’s Pre-K enrollment was 250 (twice the number of first graders). However, the actual number of children in the Pre-K program is currently over 500. We do not know the details of the projections submitted by the Hoboken district (lack of 2010 Census data probably made estimating difficult), but we believe the full population of 3-4 year old children was considered for the Pre-K school budget.
The Hoboken Early Childhood Education department will be hosting its first Open House for the upcoming school year on December 8. Additionally, the district will be hosting a special forum with the Superindentent for Early Childhood parents on December 1 (tentative). Hoboken Family Alliance encourages parents to do their homework prior to attending these meetings.

Questions to ask at the Early Childhood Open House:

• When will the amount of the NJ funding for 2011-12 Pre-K program be known?

• When will the new School Funding Reform Act be implemented and the Hoboken preschool change from universal to income-based?

• Once the free 3s program starts to be phased out, what would happen to children in the 4s program? Would it be universal for a year longer than the 3s program (i.e. existing children allowed to graduate)?

• What is the new criteria (income or otherwise) for “at risk” in Hoboken district?

• If full funding for the program is not received, do Hoboken City leaders or the BoE have any plans to transition the early childhood program into a private program?

In conclusion, changes are inevitable and families in Hoboken have to eventually get ready for the switch from universal to targeted Pre-K, as mandated by the NJ Supreme Court. At this point, we parents can only continue to keep abreast of upcoming changes, have contingency childcare plans for fall 2011, and consider ourselves lucky if the universal Early Childhood program in Hoboken continues to be fully funded for 2011. It may be the final year the program remains universal.

Published in HFA December 2010 newsletter.  Not updated for recent developments.